Frankie Hejduk on his World Cups with the USA, facing Iran, and how surfing helped his soccer

Among the colorful characters painted on the totem of American soccer players, there is no one quite like Frankie Hejduk, the SoCal surfer dude-turned  World Cup player and Columbus Crew legend. “A lot of times, it was just Frankie being Frankie,” says Hejduk five minutes into an almost hour-long phone interview.
What does he mean by that? Well, there was the time in early 1996 when he refused a ride to practice from the U.S. national team general manager Tom King, opting to get a ride from a buddy. It was his first-ever national team camp. His coach, Steve Sampson, was furious. A year later, the national team was set to leave for a trip to China, and the night before the flight to Asia, Hejduk went out with his college buddies at UCLA.
Frankie overslept and missed the trip. He played seven minutes for the national team over the next 12 months.
“I didn't grasp the craziness and gnarliness of the national team and how important it was,” says Hejduk. “I chalk it down to being young, naive, and wanting to have a good time.”
But Hejduk ended up becoming one of the most consistent field players for the USA. He’s the only American to have played in the 1996 and 2000 Olympics and the 1998 and 2002 World Cups — not bad for someone who was sometimes perceived to have cared more about getting pitted than kicking a ball around: "Surfing was my first love. Soccer was my second."
“Dude, I was going to be a pro surfer, then Sigi Schmid called me up and offered me a scholarship to UCLA,” says Hejduk. “My parents basically told me, ‘You're taking the scholarship. We've put enough time into getting you to club games and practices back and forth.’”
Hejduk’s performance at the otherwise disappointing World Cup in 1998 for the USA saw him earn a move to Bayer Leverkusen in the Bundesliga. The secret to his success? He balanced two of the world’s most physically demanding sports in what could only be described as a symbiotic relationship: Surfing kept him fit for the field, and being a pro soccer player allowed him to chase waves whenever he could.
While his teammates chilled in the soccer offseason, Hejduk was busy getting shacked on exotic islands with his friends from home. But it was also a part of a much bigger plan. “Everyone was kind of out of shape and came in slow at preseason,” says Hejduk. “I had the opposite mentality: It was, ‘I'm going to come in fast, make 'em think, 'Wow, this guy's fit, he must've been working out the whole offseason'’ — which I was.”
Surfing provides an excellent counterweight to soccer. Hejduk says in all of his years with the national team, he never lost a beep test — the short distance, interval fitness test.
“Me and Landon [Donovan] would go back and forth on the beep test and he would always try to beat me,” says Hejduk. “I would just go until he couldn't go anymore, and then I'd go like three or four more times just to show him I could do it.”
But what comes up, must come down.
“But then we'd always have training after the beep test,” says Hejduk. “And I was the worst player on the field. Bruce Arena would always say, 'Don't pass it to Frankie after the beep test!'”
Hejduk’s national team experience includes the politically charged USA’s 1998 World Cup against Iran, which is again a U.S. opponent at the 2022 World Cup.

Frankie Hejduk, pursued by Christian Ziege in the USA's 1-0 loss in the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup. Hejduk's 87 U.S. caps include seven World Cup games, 17 World Cup qualifiers, and 21 games in the Gold Cup, the trophy he lifted three times.

SOCCER AMERICA: Where will you be watching the World Cup?
FRANKIE HEJDUK: I think I’ll be going bar to bar in Columbus, just kind of cruising, drinking my beers and hanging with the fans. I'll be all dressed up in red white and blue.
Having a good time and hopefully having a really good time if we win, you know?
SA: Seems like everyone’s on that wave these days. Speaking of, would you surf during national team camps? How was that received by the coaching staff and other players?
FRANKIE HEJDUK: Um ... yeah, all the time. Me and Brian Ching used to go surfing all of the time. We'd get out there sometimes when we weren't supposed to, in between double days. I used it for fitness training more than anything.
Me and Ching caught some great waves in the January national team camp — especially when they had the camp in Carson, California, that's when we would get stoked. Before the roster came out, I would always check to see if Ching was in it, and he'd do the same. We'd immediately call each other and be like, 'Are we surfing, dude?'
We were all in. The fitness trainer at the time, Pierre Barrieu, would come with us too. He was a big surfer too, so we had a little surf posse that would sneak out and surf during the day.
SA: Did you ever get in trouble?
FRANKIE HEJDUK: No. I mean, they had to have known. We'd come back with sandals on, our feet were all sandy; Bruce Arena would ask, 'What're you guys doing?' And we'd say, 'Oh, you know, we just took a little beach walk.'
We used it as fitness, and it was a good way to train. Everything about it — it's all core engaged, you're using your legs to stand up, push off with your arms. You're using every part of your body, including holding your breath under water. Expanding your lungs, all that stuff.
I've felt to this day that it made me as fit as I was as a player.
SA: Did you surf during your MLS season?
FRANKIE HEJDUK: Oh yeah, totally. I was in Florida with the Mutiny back in the day for three years. At the Galaxy in 2011, I think I surfed more than I was on the field. Bruce [Arena] knew that too. I would come in from surfing, and Bruce would say, 'I saw that wave you caught. Nice wave dude, just make sure you make it to training tomorrow.'
They all knew it, and I just gave them the honest excuse: 'This is making me more fit.'
SA: How close were you to going pro in surfing?
FRANKIE HEJDUK: Real close. If I wasn't in pro soccer I was going to make it at that. I had sponsors, the whole nine yards. I could've definitely done it — how successful I would've been, I don't know. But all my friends were pro surfers.
Some of my old friends joke, 'Oh man, while you were in Germany getting poured on in freezing cold weather I was in Tahiti surfing the most perfect wave.'
But there was something similar to surfing the biggest wave ever, and it's called having 100,000 people scream at you. So, you know, it's a very close feeling to dropping in on a huge wave and getting that rush to that feeling you get before a game.
SA: After your 1996 U.S. debut and playing the first two games of January 1997, there was a big gap in your U.S. career?
FRANKIE HEJDUK: I think that was when I missed a national team trip to China. I overslept and literally missed a plane. I kinda got barred for a while.
SA: You overslept? Were you partying?
FRANKIE HEJDUK: I was hanging out at UCLA — I had gone there, and hadn't been there in a while — after the Gold Cup. I hung out with a couple of my buddies and just overslept. The flight was early in the morning and I didn't have a chance to get there.
SA: How hungover were you then?
FRANKIE HEJDUK: Uh ... I don't know. I didn't really get hungover back then. We had a good night. I don't know, I just woke up and missed it.
SA: So with your relationship with the national team on thin ice, were you worried you wouldn't be going to the World Cup in 1998?
FRANKIE HEJDUK: To be honest, I didn't know. I didn't think. I kind of got my head together after that incident and just really started concentrating on soccer. I was naive about national team stuff. I was a soccer player slash surfer who loved to do both of them.
I didn't grasp the craziness and gnarliness of it and hope important it was. I chalk it down to being young, naive, and wanting to have a good time. I ended up playing pretty well throughout that year in MLS and got my name back on the radar.
To this day, I thank Steve Sampson for allowing me back in. They didn't have to do that — he could've said, 'He doesn't care about the sport.' Which was not the case. I didn't grasp what was going on — I was kind of just being Frankie.
I kind of realized, 'Woah, I almost blew a big opportunity.' I talked to some people and had some great backing behind me. Family, friends. I started playing really well in MLS and made it hard for them to pick me.
SA: What was that conversation with Steve like, where he invited you back onto the team?
FRANKIE HEJDUK: It was pretty intense, he was really disappointed. He just handed the phone to the captain at the time, Cobi Jones. Cobi was like, 'Dude, come on buddy.' I was like, 'I'm sorry.' That was the extent of it: a lot of sorrys and my bads.
That's why I'm thankful to this day that they gave me another chance.

Hejduk's pro career spanned 15 years with the Tampa Bay Mutiny, Bayer Leverkusen, St. Gallen, the Columbus Crew and the LA Galaxy. He won MLS Cups with the Crew and the Galaxy. Hejduk played eight seasons with the Crew and now serves as the club's brand ambassador.
SA: You are the only player who represented the U.S. in the 1996 and 2000 Summer Olympic Games and the 1998 and 2002 World Cups. What was the key to you being such a consistent performer?
FRANKIE HEJDUK: Well, man, definitely my fitness. If we go back to surfing, that had a lot to do with it. My offseason program was surfing three times a day. You know how hard the sport of surfing is — it's not easy. By the end of the day, you're dead.
When I went into every preseason, in my mind that was the best time to get the coach on your side. Everyone was kind of out of shape and came in slow. I had the opposite mentality: It was, "I'm going to come in fast, make 'em think, 'wow, this guy's fit, he must've been working out the whole offseason'" — which I was.
SA: You were one of the few guys who saw their stock rise after the ‘98 World Cup. What was the experience like for you as a player on the field?
FRANKIE HEJDUK: The mentality was that this was my chance to show the world what I could do. I worked so hard to get to that stage, and with the past stuff that I had done — it was real. I wasn't going to fold, be scared of the moment, Germany, Yugoslavia, any of their players, whatever.
For one, I didn't know who any of their players were. I didn't know one German player — I wasn't paying attention to European soccer. Even when I was a pro with the Mutiny, I didn't know what was going on because my main focus was to train as hard as you can in soccer training and in games, and then go find the nearest beach.
Those were literally my worries. Maybe I was a little naive and didn't totally notice the moment. The fact was that it was way, way bigger than I realized.
SA: Most of your other teammates probably followed the European game closely. Did that create any friction in terms of soccer intelligence?
FRANKIE HEJDUK: No, not really. I just trained and played as hard as I could. I had to learn from the older guys and the coaches what the game was tactically. I was a little naive in that regard, too. But when I was on the field, it was balls to the wall. You weren't getting anything less than that. That's all I know.
SA: How do you recall the 1998 World Cup?
FRANKIE HEJDUK: We lost 2-0 to Germany, ranked the second best team in the world. Is that that bad? Then we played Iran, a team no one knew about [lost, 2-1]. Maybe six or seven players from that team went to play in Europe after that. They were all good players.
To be honest, that was a fun game to watch — I've watched a few times since then and it's back and forth, up and down. It was fun soccer — the most tactical? I don't know. But even though we lost we were competitive until the last minute.
And then we lost 1-0 to Yugoslavia, a mid-tier European team. So the group itself wasn't too easy, at least as easy as people thought it would be.
It's a little similar to this World Cup, in terms of the teams we're playing. A top five team in England; Iran, which is a good team, is still flying under the radar; Wales is a similar team to Yugoslavia. So it's not going to be easy.
SA: What was World Cup prep like? How much prep was opponent specific?
FRANKIE HEJDUK: They worked as hard as they could and were as thorough as they could be. It was much harder back then to get information on the other team. For Iran, we had videos that we could barely even see. But the preparation itself, we couldn't have trained harder. It was a tough camp and we were all prepared before that tournament.
We were Americans: we worked hard, busted our ass and the rest is supposed to happen.
SA: Anything that distinctly comes to mind from that Iran game?
FRANKIE HEJDUK: I missed a shot, maybe in the first half. It was right in front of the goal but it happened so fast. I was never much of a goalscorer. It bounced — boom! I hit it straight into the keeper. In hindsight, Eric Wynalda told me, 'All you have to do is hit it in the corner!'
I'm like, 'Dude, that's why I'm not playing forward, bro!' It happened so fast and I struck the ball as well as you can. I was a little disappointed in that.
They counterattacked a lot, we hit the post a bunch, I was fouled a ton, I think, that game. They were hacking the heck out of me. We did a 3-6-1 formation — when you watch the game, we dominated. It was a fun game to watch. They had Ali Daei, who played in Germany [Editor's note: Ali, the second highest scorer in the international game with 109 goals].

SA: How much did the off-field politics play into the game? Did players get asked about that stuff or feel the effect of it?
FRANKIE HEJDUK: Oh dude, it was huge. I didn't really grasp it — I was in the moment and was like, 'Hey dude, it's a soccer game.' But at that time it was one of the craziest games for the media in the world. There were hundreds of media at practices before the match.
I was young and didn't want to be involved in any political talk. I was the last guy to talk about that. I'm just kind of, peace, love and happiness and let's do this through soccer. Saying that is easy though.
SA: Were some players involved in the political stuff surrounding that match?
FRANKIE HEJDUK: No, but I would say a lot of the older guys — Alexi Lalas, Joe Max-Moore, Cobi Jones — knew the intensity of the game. I didn't. To this day, I wish I could've known a little bit more.
SA: Compare your experience at the 2002 and 1998 World Cups. How much did your experience with Bayer Leverkusen help you grow as a player? Did you notice a big improvement in your game between national team World Cup camps?
FRANKIE HEJDUK: I don't know if I improved — I didn't play a whole lot in Germany. Maybe a game there, five games off, a game here, 10 games off. But back then, if you didn't get time in the first team, you played in the reserves in the same weekend.
And they played in the German third division, which I'll tell you, was not a whole lot different from MLS at the time. It was probably even harder than MLS, I'll be honest. Everyone was fast and strong. All ex-players at the end of their careers or young kids coming up.
You learn how to be a pro a little bit more [over there]. A lot more —  cause man, when I went to Germany — you had to be prepared every single game. Double days in the week — in MLS at the Tampa Bay Mutiny, we practiced once a day at 9 a.m. cause it was so hot. We played til 11:30 and were in the pool by 1:30.
It went from that to double days, triple days two times a week. It was — you couldn't do the things I used to do, like hang out, chill and go to the beach.
You couldn't surf, but I did in the offseason. There weren't any waves I could find in Germany. I kind of was at the stage where it was like, 'this is my profession now.'
It was a little different going from California for 23 years, in the sun all of that time, and my first pro team was Tampa Bay, Florida. So I was in the sun and it was very similar.
Then you go to Germany and it's cold, wet and rainy. It was a difficult transition for the first six to eight months. I didn't understand the language — the coach yells for two-touch and you start dribbling. You have no idea what was going on. I wish I had learned the language a little more before I went over. It took me two-and-a-half years to understand what he was saying. I may have been playing in a game and have no idea what he was saying.
You'd be embarrassed because he'd come up to you, talk to you and all you could say was, 'Yeah, yeah!'
You'd have some guys on that team that spoke English and would help you out but sometimes you couldn't trust them all of the time, because they were battling for your position. There was a lot of money involved.
People really cared about bonuses and if you got into a game. They cared a lot about what they got for a game. If you get in a game for five minutes, you get one bonus, if you play the whole game you get more. There was a lot of money on the line. At that point I didn't really care about that, I was just playing soccer. It took me a while to understand it was more than that. There's a limited time to make your money.

SA: Hopes for the USA's World Cup 2022 performance?

FRANKIE HEJDUK: Making it out of the first round would be an accomplishment. I know how hard and difficult it is to win just one of those games. Let alone make it through.

Photo: (World Cup 2002) John Todd/ISI Photos 

6 comments about "Frankie Hejduk on his World Cups with the USA, facing Iran, and how surfing helped his soccer".
  1. David Richardson, November 21, 2022 at 10:41 a.m.

    Frankie - You could have gone river surfing in Germany.  There are a few spots to do it.

  2. Rick M, November 21, 2022 at 3:06 p.m.

    Class act. A gift to American soccer. Great interview 

  3. Ric Fonseca replied, November 21, 2022 at 5:54 p.m.

    A "class act?"  Really now!!!  I am just surprised that he wasn't kicked off the UCLA teams by Sigi and then by Steve S.  But a "class act?"  Must've been that intro to theater arts classes he took... He is, I must admit, a nice guy.

  4. frank schoon, November 21, 2022 at 9:03 p.m.

    I never thought much of him as a player. He lacked good skills or brains, he was all turbo, he reminded me much of Cobi Jones who is very similar in style. I could never figure what they saw in him as a soccer player. Having read this interview, now I understand. 

  5. Kent James, November 23, 2022 at 1 a.m.

    Good for Steve Sampson, giving him a second chance.  His surfing is also a reminder that often a 2nd sport can complement soccer rather than detract from it.  Another sport also provides a mental break.  Frankie's a unique individual; he always brought a great attitude (hard work and a smile, two things that can really help inspire a team).

  6. John DiFiore, November 23, 2022 at 10:17 p.m.


    I wish there was one dude on our team now that has HALF of the grit and AMERICAN SPIRIT as Frankie!!!  

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